Can artificial intelligence create positive social change?

These past few years, no industry has been as influential or has achieved such explosive high growth as technology. With the global business and government purchases of tech goods and services expected to reach more than $3.5 billion this 2020, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that technology plays a crucial role in influencing and effectuating social change. While each innovation has its own fair share of benefits and disadvantages, the advancement has been discussed often is the link between social change and technology, especially as it pertains to artificial intelligence (AI). Highly acclaimed educational institutions, such as the University of Cambridge, even held talks that further examined how language-based AI systems have been affecting and transforming the modern society we all live in today.

The artificial intelligence industry and its social benefits

As an industry of its own, AI is a field that is rapidly growing and becoming more influential by the day. According to an article by Forbes, investment into AI start-ups by venture capitalists since 2000 has increased six times. The number of active AI startups rose 14 times. In addition to this, over 72% of executives believe that AI will be the most significant business advantage due to its ability to increase labor productivity and optimize business efficiency by 67%, automate communication by 70%, and improve data analytics by 59%.

A paper sponsored by the Computing Community Consortium also mentioned how AI technologies can be used to bolster urban computing in order to come up with evidence-based policymaking, promote sustainability through optimized policies and data-backed models, improve healthcare delivery, and address some social issues such as economic development, policing, education and workforce development. All these, and more, are the reasons why governments from all around the world are also cashing in on AI. In countries like the Philippines, AI is being looked into as a possible tool to help with the distribution of social services. The country’s electricity distribution giant, Meralco, has been using AI to digitize its services and transactions since 2016. In Europe, Denmark’s government released a national AI strategy aimed at capitalizing on investments in AI technologies to enhance different societal advancement and deliver a competitive edge to business and industry.

The artificial intelligence industry and its social disadvantages

As with any other innovation that is technology-related or not, advantages are always coupled with disadvantages. The disadvantages expand beyond the typical concerns of “killer robots” or mass unemployment due to artificial intelligence. The biggest disadvantage of AI would most likely be its ability to reinforce existing social biases to damaging effects. Since AI technologies use mathematical models created by humans to identify patterns in large sets of training data, if the data is skewed in various ways, the AI system will inevitably learn and reproduce the inherent biases the creator has. There is a concern that as government and federal bodies adopt artificial intelligence technologies, these biases could become baked into the system and scale and cause further marginalization.

The law is often behind on technology and privacy due to the fast-paced nature of these industries far outpacing the government processes. There are still no laws governing tolerance for errors in facial recognition. Private companies and government organizations can misuse this technology. In an example of facial recognition, this means they could inaccurately identify individuals in crowded environments and make life-changing decisions based on the identification. These are only some of the reasons why Metaranx will not be allowing facial recognition applications to be built on the platform - and many larger companies are leading this type of initiative.

How to move forward safely with artificial intelligence for social change

Without a doubt, AI can turn into an instrumental tool in forwarding social change. However, during these challenging times, when the world is not only plagued by the ongoing global health crisis but also by growing social unrest, rampant racism, police brutality, violence, and fake news, it is all the more important that all of us become more critical of the technologies we use and how they impact us. We can harness the potential and contributions of AI but require checks in place. Companies, countries, and individuals will rely on artificial intelligence technology at work and in our private lives. We need to be sure that there are proper ethics guidelines in place and that the companies building these technologies have the best interests and intentions at heart. Many companies strive to use AI for good to ensure positive use and outcomes of AI, but it will be important for companies to provide transparency and offer accountability. Positive social change can come from artificial intelligence, so long as we regulate it along the way to ensure that.

Alexa Carls

Alexa Carls has been known as "the geek" in their friend group since high school. A lover of sci-fi and all things tech, she's constantly reading about how our use of technology is impacting our daily lives, and researching new tech that could change our future. She is currently studying several online courses while self-isolating at home amidst COVID-19.